Friday, January 8, 2010

From The UK: Condemnation Of Government Response To Alcoholism

Guardian UK

Government responses to Britain's "shocking" rise in binge drinking and alcoholism have ranged from "the non-existent to the ineffectual", the health select committee warns today.

Supermarkets and the drinks industry have more influence on government alcohol policies than health experts, the scornful report by MPs says.

Minimum prices, combined with restrictions on advertising and sponsorship, could save thousands of lives and billions of pounds a year.

The publication of the long-awaited report has triggered a fresh broadside of condemnation from health professionals frustrated by the failure of the government's strategy to tackle the escalating problems of drink-related violence and deaths.

The call for minimum pricing – already endorsed by England's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, and backed by the Scottish government – does not receive the support of the three Conservative MPs on the health committee.

But the whole committee calls for a sharp rise in taxes on spirits and "industrial white cider", improved treatment services for alcoholics, a mandatory labelling scheme for drinks, and tougher regulation of alcohol promotion and advertising.

On minimum pricing, it says that a lower limit of 40p per unit of alcohol would cost a moderate drinker only 11p more a week and could save 1,100 lives a year. If the level were set at 50p a unit, it would save 3,000 people from liver disease and other fatal conditions.

Price controls would curb self-harm among young binge-drinkers and poorer, high-volume consumers, the report suggests, and they would encourage a switch-over to weaker wines and beers. Traditional pubs would also benefit, it says: the proposal is backed by the real ale campaign group Camra.

"The drinks industry is dependent on hazardous and harmful drinkers for three-quarters of its sales and, if people drank responsibly, alcohol sales would plummet by 40%," the report states.

English drinking habits have been transformed over the past 60 years, it warns. Average consumption has risen from an annual 3.5 litres of pure alcohol per head in 1947 to 9.5 now.

"The alcohol problem in this country reflects a failure of will and competence on the part of government department and quangos," says the report.

"We are concerned that government policies are much closer to, and too influenced by, those of the drinks industry and the supermarkets than those of expert health professionals."

When Sir Liam Donaldson backed minimum price controls last year, the prime minister rubbished his proposal, saying moderate drinkers should not suffer for the "excesses of a small minority". Last week, the NHS Confederation said alcohol abuse was costing the health service £2.7bn a year.

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "Minimum pricing is essential and must be introduced alongside measures on labelling, sales and advertising, as part of an effective mandatory code."

Alison Rogers, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, commented: "Government vacillation and political cowardice are costing lives. Liver cirrhosis deaths have increased five-fold between 1970 and 2006, while in France, Italy and Spain, deaths have dropped between two- and four-fold." Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, added: "Politicians, first in Scotland but now more widely in the UK, are coming to the inevitable conclusion that existing policies to reduce health harms caused by alcohol misuse have failed … The time has come for stronger regulation, particularly on price and availability."

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, of the British Medical Association, said: "This cosy relationship [between the government, the drinks industry and supermarkets] needs to end and we need … minimum pricing, higher taxation, reduced availability, improved regulation and better treatment for patients who have alcohol addiction problems."

The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Sandra Gidley, a committee member, said: "Stopping alcohol being sold at pocket-money prices is vital to tackle the problems of Booze Britain and start the process of national alcohol rehab. Gordon Brown must listen to respected medical opinion."

The drinks industry rejected the proposal outright. A spokesperson for SABMiller said: "Minimum pricing will have an impact on the vast majority of responsible, law-abiding people who drink moderately, whilst it would be ineffective in addressing the minority of excessive drinkers."

The public health minister, Gillian Merron, conceded that "alcohol is an increasing challenge to people's health" and said that the government was stepping up its public awareness campaigns. "We will consider all of the committee's proposals carefully and respond to them formally in due course," she added.

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